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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

A good wild year

Posted on November 30 2015 at 1:15:37 0 comments

February in Foxhill

Mary Green looks at festive traditions and reflects on the past months.

Several people said they couldn’t see the brimstone butterfly in my photo last month. Look more closely – it’s there!

As I write this, I’m still seeing butterflies, and have seen poppies still flowering, in November. I can’t remember ever thinking you could pick live ones for Remembrance before.

No one needs reminding that December is full of traditions and celebrations. But the origins of modern Christmas are not straightforward. Originally the birth of Christ was not thought of as happening in the middle of winter, but it was probably established then because it was such a powerful celebratory time in many earlier religions.

Until the 12th century the season wasn’t called Christmas but went under the name of Yule, an old term for the midwinter season, which predates the Christian era but was taken over as the name for the Christmas period. We still keep the name in “Yule log”, both the real wooden one and the more modern chocolate one (which is not very traditional).

The Yule log was a large piece of wood which was put on the fire on Christmas Eve and was supposed to burn through the night. There was an alternative tradition of burning an “ashen faggot” on Christmas Eve. This was a large ash log bound into a bundle with thinner sticks, put on to the fire. As each stick caught fire and blazed, another drink of hot cider or ale was passed round!

There is still a feeling of warmth and homeliness around having seasoned logs on an open fire, which I know many people round here will be doing in December. I grew up with a log fire being the only heating in the living room – I remember a lot of elm later when we lost the elm trees to Dutch elm disease.

Another Christmas Eve tradition was that the oxen knelt at midnight, in memory of their role as witnesses of Christ’s birth in the stable. Thomas Hardy writes about people still believing in this in the early 20th century.

Our Christmas traditions are very bound up with animals: the ox and ass in the stable, the sheep whose shepherds were the first to hear the news, the gift of a lamb, the wise men on their camels, the robin singing. Some of these are Biblical, some have come later, but they all figure in our December images.

On December 6 comes St Nicholas’s Day. He was, among other things, the patron saint of children. On his day, many dioceses appointed a “boy bishop,” a child who would carry out the ritual duties of a bishop in the time between then and Twelfth Night.

This is one of a series of “topsy turvy” traditions throughout the year – authorised mischief somehow being seen as a way of maintaining the underlying stability of society.

St Nicholas was a very powerful saint, credited with having saved many people, especially young people, from death or a “fate worse than death!” There are few traditions associated with his day, but he has become hugely incorporated into Christmas, turning at some point into Santa Claus.

He then merged with a different ancient figure called Father Christmas, a personification of the old year and the celebration of Yule. His red coat catches the fire symbol of midwinter and new life, like the holly berries and the robin’s breast.

Christmas is now seen very much as a children’s festival, but it wasn’t always so. St Nicholas becoming Santa is a feature of this change.

Advent, the run up to Christmas, was traditionally a quiet time for prayer and waiting, usually involving fasting or at least not feasting, living simply. I don’t know how the chocolate got into the advent calendar, but it seems to have got into all our celebrations somehow!

At one time, very little happened in the way of Christmas decorations and preparations till immediately beforehand. People decorated their houses with great ceremony on Christmas Eve.

In previous centuries, decorations mostly meant greenery. This was more varied than today, with yew, holly, ivy, pine, juniper, bay, rosemary, mistletoe – anything green – being used.

The greenery was left up for a long time though – originally till Candlemas on February 2, or even till Shrove Tuesday, and only more recently to be taken down on Twelfth Night.

There was always something special about bringing the greenwoods into the house, as it was often thought unlucky to cut holly or mistletoe at other times (as it was unlucky to bring may blossom in except on May Day).

It had to be properly burnt with reverence afterwards (possibly to cook pancakes!), or fed to the cattle to enhance prosperity. The greenwood retained a mystique as a place of wildness and ancient spirits, which would help you if you treated it right.

The tradition of a bough of mixed evergreen with a piece of mistletoe in the middle as a “kissing bough” is quite an old one, but of course the actual Christmas tree is a relatively modern one coming from Victorian times.

But December is always the time to surround yourself with green growth and fire, whether to mark the turning of the year or the birth of Christ. However, as you may have noticed in my review of country customs during the year, almost all commemorations involve our relationship with plants, and sometimes birds and animals.

December is a traditional time to look back over the year. This has been an interesting wildlife year here, partly because of the weather.

The year has been short of extremes – it wasn’t very cold in the middle of last winter, we didn’t have really bad rain or wind, and there weren’t any really hot settled spells. This has made it a very good year for plant growth.

Although we didn’t have much snow last winter, it was cold on average for the first part of the year. The year’s cycle started late and slowly, and continued that way.

Most flowers and leaves were a couple of weeks later than average in coming, right through the spring and summer. This meant that plants weren’t caught out by late frosts. Cool weather in later summer also meant the flowers stuck around for a long time. I kept thinking “It’s a really good year for…” pretty well everything!

The leaves started to turn relatively early after a cool late summer. It was a wonderful autumn for leaf colour. The fine, calm and mild weather in September and October meant the leaves stayed on the trees, even on the ash which usually doesn’t last long once it goes yellow.

This mild spell also meant the later-turning trees started relatively late, so the period of coloured leaf went on a long time, well into November.

Our local landscape has changed quite a bit this year. One big change has been around Alvechurch Station, which was completely remodelled after the cutting down of trees and hedges. This year has been regrowth time. There is a new line of trees coming on nicely along the whole stretch.

There is some rather peculiar reseeding on the new banks, which has amused us with oriental poppies and marigolds. There has been a lovely regrowth of the old wild flowers on the existing bank. And some of the areas used during the works have revived into attractive wild flower patches.

Near this, the canal has changed. The restructured towpath has done good things for access to our biggest Local Wildlife Site, the canal. Not only can you walk it in all weathers, you can also wheel a buggy or use a mobility scooter.

The flowering plants which are crucial to its wildlife importance have come back in an amazing fashion. It’s hard to believe that in early spring I was looking at bare churned-over mud, and a few months later the full range of flowers – and their insects – were back.

I have also been watching the resurgence of proper hay meadows around where I live, and the replanting of trees and laying of hedges, and creation of ponds, all needed for the land to continue sustainable for decades to come.

I noticed too that Mick’s Wood between Alvechurch and Hopwood has become a real wood now, and has interesting bird life such as willow warblers and a cuckoo. The birches there were stunning in November. It’s so good to think there are more trees around than when I first moved here nearly 30 years ago.

At Rowney Green the big change has been in Newbourne Wood, our nearest Nature Reserve. It seemed odd to many people, I think, when a lot of coniferous trees were cut down year.

But last December new native trees were planted – hundreds of them – so we will eventually have a proper local wood here. I think it’s already encouraging more people to walk round the wood; about the only place near Alvechurch where you can walk freely in woodland.

Our roadside verges have been somewhat more wildlife-friendly this year, due to less frequent mowing. I note that next year Worcestershire County Council aims to have a “bee friendly” campaign, and one of the things they may do is to create more roadside nature reserves (like the one we have at Romsley).

I hope they will continue to reduce the mowing of all their verges – bees aren’t very good at recognising reserves, and need continuous corridors.

The same is true along the canal, of course, and it has been a bit of a patchy year for that corridor.

Bad news has included the removing of a lovely old cherry plum tree and the mowing down of hedgeside plants in full flower by the new towpath: good news includes recognition of the patch where the bee orchids have re-appeared and an undertaking to maintain the flowering corridor under a revised mowing regimen.

I have watched with interest the uncovering of the old limekilns and an old orchard at Tardebigge – more on that next year.

The new towpath surface makes a very good background for seeing some of our odd waterfowl. The mandarin drake has come back, and we’ve also this year seen barnacle and greylag geese, wood ducks and some strange ducks and geese crossbred with farmyard breeds.

But in the cycle of the year, the more common mallards, Canada geese, moorhens and increasing numbers of herons are a continuous delight. Mind you, I haven’t seen a young heron yet – maybe next year. . .

My poem is one I wrote last year for the Christmas session at Acoustic Roots in Alvechurch Social Club where the Withybed poets read regularly. This year’s is on December 11.

Christmas Card for Acoustic Roots
December comes, with cold and drizzle
But in the dark streets the people shine
With the power of hand-made presents
And the carols which never become clichés
A toddler dances to While Shepherds Watched
Music in her eyes and her toes
And glory shines around.
At the pantomime, we all believe
The human cannonball really flies
Along with the fairies and the angels
Filling the night with feathers.
Here at the club we sing another year
In the warmest place in the village
Like the room behind the inn
Candles always burn in flowered jars
You buy drinks, get change from a fiver
And other everyday miracles.
We sit close together, as the music passes
Through us from body to body, a thread
Binding us in like a winter cobweb
Spangled with frost and sunlight.
Winter is dark, the room is dark
But both shine with the oldfashionedness
Of love, of mince-pies, of sung harmonies
Acoustic because we have our human power
Roots which we keep in the wintry earth
Bringing forth music in a blossom of stars.


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